Muslim radicals target Egypt Christians

January 20, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

ASYUT, Egypt -- Jesus grieved from every wall, his painted anguish brought alive by the sway of hanging bulbs. Under his multiple gazes, black-draped women wept to mourn the death of another Christian.

He was a doctor, shot on his doorstep a day before. No one doubts he was murdered because he was a Copt.

Since early 1992, dozens of Coptic Christians have been killed by Muslim radicals. They are a target in the Islamic fundamentalists' aim to overthrow the secular Egyptian government. The campaign of terror has spread fear throughout this old Christian community, the largest in the Middle East.

"Please, please, I beg you, do not use our names," said a brother of the slain man. "They will kill us -- and you -- if they knew you were here."

Christians are abandoning many countries of the Middle East, leaving to escape political repression, to find jobs, to find stable futures. Their flight is a historical turn that is changing the nature and politics of the region.

No where is there more direct -- and lethal -- pressure on Christians than in Egypt. Here, an estimated 6 million Christians are caught in a violent struggle. Ironically, the Egyptian Copts are the most determined not to leave the land of their ancestors, unlike their Christian brethren in other lands of the Middle East.

On a nearby bluff overlooking ancient Asyut, a monk who took the name Deacon Luke shows off a cave where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are said to have stopped when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod's wrathful search for his rival king of the Jews.

The holy family was probably invited in by the townsfolk who moved up to the cool cave each year as the Nile Valley flooded. Deacon Luke acknowledges that the welcome to Christians is not so warm.

"Of course, the people are afraid," said the monk, who is also a physician. But to flee, he scowled, "is against the religion. One should stay to submit to the will of God."

While Christians in other countries have used their connections to the West to emigrate, the Copts have clung tenaciously to the fertile Nile Valley.

"Egyptian Copts are rooted in their land," said Metropolitan Bishoy, a bishop of the Coptic Church. "No one would think to leave his family, his community, his father confessor."

The Copts claim undiluted descent from the pharaonic Egyptians; the name "Copt" is related to the Greek word for Egypt. They added Christianity to their worship of a variety of gods soon after St. Mark visited Egypt in the year 64. The author of the gospel is said to have been the first bishop of Alexandria.

Resisted conversion

Today's Copts are descendants of those who resisted conversion to Islam after the Muslim invasion in the 7th century. They consider themselves "the true Egyptians." They broke away from the church of Constantinople in A.D. 451 in a theological dispute and have their own pope and hierarchy based in Cairo.

Their numbers are now hidden by politics: The government has said there are as few as 3 million, and Copts have claimed as many as 20 million. Most outside estimates compromise on 6 million, about one in 10 Egyptians. They far outnumber Christians in the rest of the Middle East.

Despite their numbers, they often found safety in obscurity. Today there are no language, racial or geographic separations HTC between them and their Muslim countrymen. They have endured occasional upsurges of persecution but have infused themselves in all levels of Egyptian society.

But now, the shadow of the veil has set them apart. Christians are targets in the swelling tide of Muslim fundamentalism.

If there was any question, May 4, 1992, proved the seriousness of the threat. Late in the morning in a rural town called Sanabu, Muslim gunmen opened fire on Christian farmers in their fields, killing nine. As the gunmen escaped, they shot dead four other Christians, including a teacher and a doctor.

The incident was only the worst of a series. Four Christians axed to death and 64 houses burned in Tema; a Coptic pharmacist shot in Dayrut al Sherif; unexplained fires in factories own by Copts.

Factory burned

"I was very frightened," said Marie Bishara after her family's clothing factory outside Cairo was set ablaze in June. "We have beefed up security guards. Even laborers and engineers guard the factory at night."

"Egypt used to be so tolerant," sighed Rifaat Said, a Muslim who heads a liberal party and often writes in defense of Copts. Now two men with machine guns guard Mr. Said's office. Only after he is satisfied his visitor is not a threat does he reach inside his shirt and remove his revolver, putting it in a drawer.

Writers, politicians, Muslims and Christians have been killed in the fundamentalist campaign against the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Said believes that one day he will be one of the victims. But he says he fears closed minds more than open fire.

"Terrorism is not just violence. It's the whole black atmosphere, the whole way of thinking," he said.

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